Friday, May 04, 2007

Caring About Unions

Congratulations! Dr. Free Ride at waagnfnp writes:

This week, I voted to ratify our new faculty contract with the California State University system. The negotiations for this contract were frustratingly unproductive until my faculty union organized a rolling strike that was planned as a set of two-day walkouts at each of the 23 campuses in the system. When strike dates were announced (and, we are told, with some serious political pressure behind the scenes to avert a strike that would have garnered national and international media coverage), the administration came back to the bargaining table with a contract the negotiating team deemed reasonably good. The vote this week should indicate whether the CSU faculty share that judgment (I’m betting they will).

The staggering thing to me is that we went almost two years without a contract before we could bring ourselves to the point where we were ready to strike.

I’ve been reflecting upon this, and it occurs to me that there are certain features of a good many faculty members that make it hard for us to embark easily on a job action.
First on the list is that "University teaching is a caring profession." Thus, job actions like strikes are difficult steps for faculty to take since we tend to care deeply about the welfare of our students. This is a very kind view of faculty resistance to unions. I hope I will be able to cultivate such generous responses to my own colleagues' continuing resistance to unions in the future. However, as she notes elsewhere, caring about students and caring about wages and workloads are not incompatible goals. They are in fact intimately connected. Finding ways to clearly and creatively articulate this very real connection is a challege.

I suspect at least some of the resistance to faculty unions lie in much less noble sentiments. Competition and a culture that values the intellectual agon of academia is still very pervasive. Having a collective wage structure, rather than the current one geared towards individual academic free agents, takes away one venue for that competition. Plus, we intellectuals and free thinkers don't like to be reminded that we are also workers. Union membership makes that connection all too clear and drags us down from our imagined intellectual heights and underscores our connections with the rest of our co-workers on campus in the staff offices and dining halls.

Cultivating care for this community beyond our own research and our own students is an even greater challenge.


  1. "Cultivating care for this community beyond our own research and our own students is an even greater challenge."

    Yes, because one's own research and teaching are the only venues in which one can reliably influence outcomes. Cultivating one's own garden (supposedly) is the only way to feel satisfied and also ... to get ahead, and by the way ... to get along.

    That, of course, is because of the culture of individualism / competition and the fantasy that one is not a worker, but potentially at least, management.

    Fitting into that individualist dream, though, or trying to, has always felt to me like a form of what is now called 'denial'.

    And nota bene: it is administrations who tend to say we *should* not strike because we are or should be caring, and ought to care first about the students who want to graduate now.

  2. Gary Rhoades and Sheila Slaughter have done some great work on how the culture of entrepreneurialism in academia has morphed into full-blown academic capitalism. The journal Workplace is a good place to go for the antidote. Over at Objectivist v. Constructivist v. Theist I link to lots of other good academic politics/terms and conditions type sites and blogs (never mind my libertarian and Christian colleagues' picks)....

  3. Thanks for the link Constructivist. I've added a link to the Workplace Blog now.

  4. hi LP,

    Ohmigosh I really like your blog (*ahem*).

    At the Organization of American Historians conference this year I heard a good panel on privatization, among other things. One of the audience members was a high school history teacher in part-time pursuit of a PhD and who was active in his local of the American Federation of Teachers. There was a really good whole group discussion comparing healthcare unionization with education - unions in the former have been much better at saying "power on the job for healthcare workers is in the interest of patients" than unions in the latter have been at making the analogous argument. That's a weakness, and one which could be corrected without any real deception I think.

    Another partially related tactic for faculty unions in particular would be to cultivate links to campus/student groups and to help student labor-left groups get set up (anti-sweatshop groups etc), that would provide a base to support unionization, move the message, etc. My impression is that some of the now Change To Win unions have been better at this than others, through initiatives like Justice For Janitors etc.
    take care,

  5. Sorry to post twice, I had a second thought related to this and the other discussions about the uses of blogging. Leopoldina Fortunati somewhere says something like (I need to finally find the reference cuz I bring it up vaguely this way too much) 'love is a form of wage' for monetarily unwaged women's labors. Similarly, David Roediger, drawing on WEB DuBois sees a wage which is provided to white workers, the 'wages of whiteness.'

    Before coming back to university, I worked mostly in social justice oriented NGOs. In general, conditions were bad, hours long, and pay relatively low. Persistent throughout the industry was a sense of working for more than just the paycheck because we were making a big difference. Even if true, and in some cases I think it definitely wasn't, this sense of satisfaction and moral rightness (which also authorized some pretty harsh workplace discipline on occasion because the punishing boss could think of himself as Acting For The Struggle rather than doing a normal boss function) forms a similar sort of wage. At a minimum I think this forms a payment in kind of use values in exchange for the activities in question.

    It seems to me from my relatively short time back in university that there's often a similar nonmonetary payment that accompanies academic work - a sense of prestige, a sense at least in leftleaning departments/fields/whatever of doing work that makes a difference, a sense of being smarter than other people, a sense of helping students etc etc. Talking about being an academic as a job (even if - and it's a big if - a good job) instead of a calling devalues some of that emotional currency. This is really just a convoluted restatement of your paragraph which begins with "I suspect."

    take care,